for National Geographic News
The oldest known bird fossils from New Zealand were recently unearthed along a remote stretch of beach on the Chatham Islands, researchers announced.
The fossils represent possibly four new species of seabirds dating back to the late Cretaceous period, around 65 million years ago.
Other remains from the same blocks of fossil-laden sandstone suggest that the birds co-existed with marine and terrestrial dinosaurs.
"This is New Zealand's oldest fossil aviary, and it has implications for the origin of modern seabirds," said excavation leader Jeffrey Stilwell of Monash University in Australia.
Stilwell found the fossil trove along a 1.2-mile (2-kilometer) stretch of rugged shoreline on the main Chatham Island, which sits more than 500 miles (800 kilometers) east of Christchurch (see map).
Storms had washed sand away from a rocky platform on Maunganui Beach, revealing a wealth of bones from the Cretaceous, when New Zealand first separated from the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana.
"It's quite spectacular to have that many birds in one deposit," Stilwell said. "I don't know of any other site in New Zealand like it."
Tall and Slender
Stilwell, whose work was funded by the National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration, would not comment on the birds' identities until they are formally described in the scientific literature.
(National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)
However, he said, he has sent samples to Sylvia Hope, a bird-fossil expert with the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
"She's working on the relationships between the [newfound] birds, and it's pretty profound stuff—there are at least two new genera [and] new species."
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